On Tuesday night, a group of protesters calling themselves ‘Slappe tijden, slimme meiden’ (literally ‘Bad times, smart girls) vandalised the Aletta Jacobs mural at the Broerplein. The group crossed out the word ‘ugly’ in the mural’s sentence ‘Studying is for ugly girls’.
The anonymous group members also stuck a sheet of paper to the mural which read: ‘It’s high time for a cultural change: Aletta for Rector Magnificus’.
The mural had previously caused a stir when it was revealed in late May. Artist’s duo VAAF wanted to provoke people with their art. They wanted to honour Jacobs’ achievements while also showing how poorly the first female university student was treated by her fellow male students.
Painting the text ‘Studying is for ugly girls’, something which a Leiden student remarked at the time, on young Jacobs’ t-shirt was intended to give the phrase new meaning. ‘Just like Aletta was back then, women are still judged by their looks today’, artist Jonna Bo Lammers said to UKrant in an earlier interview. Jacobs is wearing the t-shirt as a form of protest.
But not everyone understood the message. In an opinion piece, Aletta Jacobs professor of health & humanities Rina Knoeff said the line was wrong and inaccurate.
Female academics Marije Michel, associate professor at European languages and cultures, was friends with were left with ‘a bitter aftertaste’ after reading the text, she told UKrant last June.
Every day, thousands of people pass the mural, which is several metres high. The fact that there was nothing that explained the text was painful and potentially confirmed stereotypes, said Michel.
VAAF said there was going to be a sign explaining the mural, but the UG had not installed it when the mural was unveiled. To this day, no sign has appeared. The university says it’s working on creating a QR code for the mural, which would take people to an explanation on the Kunstpunt Groningen website.
In a press release, the protest group says it feels the text on the mural is a poor way to ‘greet new female students and lecturers from the Netherlands and abroad’.
They also criticised rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga. ‘She, as well as the two young female artists, claim this mural celebrates emancipated. […] But doesn’t the text “Studying is for ugly girls” and the quote below in fact confirm stereotypes such as the ones that recently were espoused by a group of young men that were part of a student corps?’
As far as the protesters are concerned, the text should have read ‘Studying is for clever girls – and not for beastly boys’. ‘That would actually encourage a relevant debate.’
In a written response to the mural being vandalised, rector Cisca Wijmenga said the university ‘greatly values’ freedom of speech. ‘It’s just a shame it comes at the expense of the Aletta Jacobs mural. But it does show that the artists succeeded in their goal of engendering debate. We applaud that.’
However, the rector does condemn the protesters vandalising the mural. According to her, the university is a place for open debate where no subject is taboo. ‘The protesters’ actions show how relevant this debate still is and that we must keep it up.’